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National Treasure: The Edge of History Struggles to Solve Puzzle of Its Existence

The era of weaponized nostalgia has been very good for Disney, a company that loves to recycle its most beloved (and even its largely forgotten) properties into new products designed largely to appear to stressed-out adults who wish they could be kids again. Remember when Nicolas Cage solved historical puzzles in the two “National Treasure” movies? Wasn’t life so much simpler then? Honestly, it makes perfect sense that a brand name that I think most people were surprised to see go dormant for 15 years is finally returning in some form. After years of trying to get a proper film sequel off the ground, the series goes to streaming in “National Treasure: Edge of History,” a Young Adult variation on the concept with cameos from film stars—Cage is rumored to appear in the second season—but a mostly different cast and tone. The Jon Turteltaub films weren’t exactly Michael Bay, but they had a momentum that’s just lacking in this talky, bland riff on the idea of historical mysteries. There’s a charming lead who tries to hold it together, but she’s a victim of shallow writing that somehow finds a way to make puzzle-solving boring. How is that possible? It’s a mystery.

Protagonist Jess Valenzuela (Lisette Alexis) is introduced solving an escape room with her friends, which really sets the stage for the YA writing that spells out nearly everything—“See, she’s good at puzzles!” Jess basically graduates into a more challenging world of underground cabals of puzzle solvers when she meets Peter Sadusky (Harvey Keitel, reprising his role from the films, but only in the premiere), the former FBI Special Agent who is now considered deranged because of his rambling about conspiracies and surveillance. He not only senses a kindred soul in Jess—who comes with baggage of her own about a long-dead father who may have been connected to puzzle-solving himself—but starts her on a path that finds her and a group of friends bouncing around the country, searching for clues at American landmarks. Remember how “National Treasure” used the Declaration of Independence as a puzzle piece? Expect more of that, including a trip to Graceland in the third episode and a return of Justin Bartha’s Riley Poole in the fourth chapter. Along the way, “Edge of History” gets a villain in Billie Pearce (Catherine Zeta-Jones), an evil antiquities dealer who seems to always be one step behind Jess.

It's often a problem in shows aimed at teens that the writers think they need to talk down to them, but it feels particularly antithetical to do so in the scripts for a show that’s about brilliant people solving puzzles that have baffled people for generations. “Edge of History” is one of those programs that barely bothers with character—Jess is laden with emotional beats related to her dead father and her status as a DACA recipient but feels so thin beyond those, and her sidekicks are even more forgettable, especially a bland potential love interest in Jake Austin Walker’s Liam Sadusky. Honestly, the fact that Alexis can be as charming as she is in some scenes is a testament to her screen presence, one that seems to constantly be calling out for a more challenging show.

Again, this is a YA show on Disney+, so perhaps expectations should be low in terms of character depth, but then the shallowness needs to be offset with fun, right? And that’s where “Edge of History” truly falters. The mysteries are bland and unengaging, perhaps because the concept feels inherently designed for films and not a neverending plot. Imagine a series of puzzles with no end—every time Jess solves something, it just pushes her to the next something. It’s like the Historical Scavenger Hunt that went on forever.

It’s possible that the writers of “National Treasure: Edge of History” are just putting pieces in place for stronger action and mystery writing in the future. Alexis is definitely up to the challenge, and, to be fair, director Mira Nair does an admirable job giving the premiere a bit of visual language. It just feels like one of those shows that doesn’t trust its audience, spelling every emotional beat and bland plot development out in bold, highlighted dialogue. Teen viewers are smarter than Hollywood thinks. They always have been. The real mystery is why writers never figure that out.

Four episodes screened for review. Premieres on Disney+ on December 14th with two episodes, one a week after that.

 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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